December 28, 2007
For Dios, But For Which Candidate?
Caught in the crosshairs of their double-barreled identity, Latino evangelicals are having a hard time finding a candidate to back in 2008.
Like their mainstream evangelical peers, the group's advocacy of conservative stances on social issues has traditionally allied them with the Republican Party. But this year, the hard-line anti-immigration position taken by some leading Republicans has soured Hispanic evangelicals on the GOP.
"The Republicans have put us in a very difficult spot," says Reverend Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which represents some 3 million Latino evangelicals. "We are ashamed of our party."
That's quite a turnaround. For the past eight years, the Republicans have enjoyed the embrace of Latino evangelicals largely through the personal appeal of George W. Bush. Bush made it a point to address Latino evangelicals directly through Spanish-sprinkled speeches at National Hispanic Prayer Breakfasts.
"The daily example of our Hispanic communities reminds us that strong faith and strong families can build a better future for all," Bush told an applauding audience at the 2006 event. "We're a more hopeful society because men and women of Hispanic descent have put their faith and values into action."
It has paid off for the president. In 2000, Bush garnered 44 percent of the Protestant Hispanic vote. And in 2004, 56 percent. In contrast, 33 percent of Catholic Hispanics voted for Bush in both elections. "He makes the effort – that communicates a lot," notes Sam Betancourt, president of Hispanic Strategies, a political consulting, marketing and fundraising firm in Los Angeles.
But this year immigration has emerged as a thorny issue for fundamentalist Latino Christians, who find the Republican hardliner position distasteful and the alternative – the Democrats, who are more liberal on social issues as well as immigration – not very appealing, either. So far, neither party is paying much attention to courting the Latino evangelical vote – a mistake, analysts say.
"They're the most important swing vote within the Hispanic community," says Sergio Bendixen, a Hillary Clinton advisor who co-authored a chapter on Hispanic evangelicals in the new book "Microtrends." "It's a very fast growing segment of the Hispanic electorate."
According to "Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion," a study published earlier this year by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of Protestant Latino voters increased by 900,000 from 2000 to 2004, while the number of Catholic Latino voters rose by about 460,000.
Yet, Latino evangelicals are not the easiest group to reach. There's no one national Latino evangelical group or leader. There are several national coalitions – and some rivalry between them. They are also not easy to tap through media. Spanish-language evangelical radio and television outlets, such as Radio Nueva Vida and TBN Enlace USA, say they make it a point to avoid political partisanship. The importance of issues such as gay marriage and abortion is overplayed when it comes to Latino evangelicals, says Rivera and others.
The bottom line is immigration, which carries a wider implication of discrimination.
"More important is the rhetoric, the message that the Republicans are delivering that they do not want the United States overtaken by Latin Americans. It's offensive," says Bendixen, president of Bendixen & Associates, an opinion polling firm in Miami and a paid advisor to Hillary Clinton's campaign. "It's a fallacy that Hispanic evangelicals will go to the Republicans for social issues."
The Republicans may not have lost the Latino evangelical vote entirely. Moderates such as Mitt Romney and John McCain are more palatable candidates, says Betancourt.
"We would support a compassionate candidate with traditional conservative values, someone who understands issues and problems of the community and brings equitable solutions," he says.
Rivera notes that the Democrats still have strong inroads with the Latino evangelical community. Some 52 percent of the pastors in his organization are Democrats, and about a third is Republican, he says. Politics play a key role in religion for Hispanics, both evangelicals and Catholics, according to the aforementioned Pew Hispanic Center study. "Most Latinos see religion as a moral compass to guide their own political thinking and they expect the same of their political leaders," the study says. "Most Latinos view the pulpit as an appropriate place to address social and political issues."
For evangelicals, the church pastor's word is particularly important. These churches tend to play influential roles in their worshipers' lives, becoming social and community bases, which is one of their attractions that lures converts, Bendixen says.
Reverend Rivera says Latino evangelicals should take charge of their own interests, especially in local politics and issues. He cited the example of Reverend Ruben Diaz, a Bronx minister who is also a New York state senator. "He is a conservative Democrat," says Rivera, whose organization lastmonth sued the state of Oklahoma to overturn a law that makes it illegal to harbor or transport illegal immigrants.
"Let's become politically active ourselves," Rivera adds.